Author: Melissa Timo, Historic Cemetery Specialist
Above: Old Burying Grounds, Beaufort, NC
When people think of historic sites to visit in North Carolina, historic cemeteries are not usually anywhere near the top of the list. However, they are great places to get outside and learn more about your community’s history (and easy to social distance). The names and dates carved on the stone, metal, and wooden markers are interesting in their own right. But did you know that there are other, coded messages hidden in plain sight? Headstone symbols can give us more clues about the lives of those being memorialized.
Twenty-first century headstones have easily recognizable symbols that reflect obvious personal interests: a bass for a fisherman, a cartoon character for a child, a military emblem for a veteran. Symbols used in the past require a little more digging.
Eighteenth century Euro-American headstones reflected a changing attitude towards death. The earliest colonists chose morbid designs to express the grim reality of death. They used skulls, winged death heads, scythes, and hour glasses to reminded viewers that their time will come and to amend their behavior so that the inevitable end leads to a glorious afterlife. As the century progressed and living conditions improved, symbology began to soften. Death heads became cherubs, and by the beginning of the 19th century, “urn and willows” and hands pointing to heaven became prevalent. Grim morality lessons became soft memorials to grief and faith.
The use of symbols positively exploded during the Victorian era. An improvement in tools and material types allowed the era’s over-the-top aesthetics to creep into choices made about headstone symbols. There were symbols for professions (books, scales, anchors, etc.) and fraternal orders (for example the Masonic Square and Compass, the International Order of Oddfellows’ three link chain, and the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks’… elk).
Floriography, or the “language of flowers,” was particularly popular from the Victorian era through the early 20th century. Passionate declarations and scathing affronts could be sent for you by your local florist employing the correct combination of flowers and plants. So, it’s not surprising that this complicated language was represented on memorials as well.
For example, calla lilies represented marriage and crocuses meant youthful gladness. Daffodils could mean death of youth, desire, art, grace, beauty, and deep regard. Pansies were for remembrance and humility. Poppies spoke of peace, rest, eternal sleep, and consolation.
Roses are often used on headstones. By themselves, roses may represent beauty, hope, unfailing love, or the Virgin Mary. However, the state of the rose changes its meaning. Rosebuds suggest a life cut short or a child under 12 (similarly accomplished with the use of a lamb figure). If the rose was between full bloom and bud, it may suggest that the memorial was for a teenager or young adult. Small clues like these are particularly helpful if a headstone’s inscription has been worn away by time or damaged by vandalism.
It is important for the modern visitor to remember that context is important for interpreting symbols. If a visitor sees a thistle on a headstone, they may immediately assume Scottish ancestry. But that same symbol in floriography means earthly sorrow or even Christ’s crown of thorns. A headstone that looks like a tree stump may indicate that a young person’s life was cut short. However, it is also a funerary symbol used by the Woodmen of the World. The latter is a not-for-profit fraternal benefit society founded in 1890 in Omaha, Nebraska. They offered their (almost exclusively male) members across the country tree stump-shaped headstones until 1930.
Completely different meanings, but all tell important stories. Other clues on the headstone will help guide your interpretation. Compare symbols with epitaph information to be sure.
What about vernacular (non-commercially or homemade) markers? Prevalent in rural and African American communities, these rarely adhere to mainstream, commercial norms. Even without floriography and standardized symbology, these communities had their own funerary symbols in the form of materials, graveside goods, and regionally or culturally specific imagery. They tell fascinating stories of ancient cultures, evolving traditions, local histories, and unique and personalized individual memorialization.
So while you enjoy the crisp air and rich history at your local historic cemetery this fall, keep your eyes open. There are stories all around waiting for you to discover!
Learn more about headstone symbology.
Learn more about floriography.
Please adhere to any and all posted cemetery rules and hours of operation. Historic headstones are fragile and non-renewable resources. Do not lean, sit, or stand on them. Headstone rubbings are not recommended. Pressure may dislodge stones or cause damage to unstable headstone motifs and epitaphs. Follow National Park Service guidance: “Take only pictures, leave only footsteps!”
All images by NC Office of State Archaeology.